Oliver Chong's playwriting and directorial debut, I'm Just a Piano Teacher was a striking, pungent success, and was my top pick of the year for 2006. Chong obviously wanted to repeat the trick with his next production, Pinocchio's Complex, as there are distinct similarities between the two pieces: both attempt to use puppetry in original ways; both focus intently on their protagonist's particular character failing; both mine theatre classics to supply mood and resonance. But there is also one distinct difference: Piano Teacher was astoundingly good; Pinocchio's Complex was shockingly awful.
Let's start with the puppetry. No one who saw Piano Teacher will ever forget its unusual aesthetic of human heads with puppet bodies. Although this is not technically original (Googling the term "human heads on puppet bodies" turns up this site) I had certainly never seen it done before and, more to the point, it proved exactly the right medium to tell the play's story. The puppet bodies robbed the actors of their three-dimensional humanity but in turn gave them a gaudy cartoon thinness that encouraged them to become vivid caricatures with semi-articulated, masklike faces - archetypes of need, weakness or anxiety. Indeed, the human-puppet combination did much of the script's work for it, immediately presenting characters so vivid that there was little need to create them in words. The result was a spare but telling text that gave glorious free rein to the visual.
In Pinocchio's Complex, Chong attempted to expand the vocabulary of puppetry by not using puppets. Oddly enough, this bizarre idea is not original. In fact, it is quite famous, thanks to the ideas of Edward Gordon Craig, one of the fathers of Symbolist theatre. Craig, finding that human actors were too imprecise to inhabit the sublime geometric worlds his set designs created for them, pioneered the concept of the übermarionette, an actor reduced to a puppet, humanity distilled to form. Granted, Craig was not attempting to broaden the horizons of puppetry - rather he wanted to limit the horizons of human performance, purging actors of their distracting emotional idiosyncrasies. And although Craig never got this idea to work in his own practice, it prompted Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt, Ionesco's clockwork mannequins and Wilson's seamless human slideshows. In other words, it proves pretty damn useful whenever a director wants to create a political, psychological or semiotic barrier between performer, character and audience.
But it seemed that Chong did not want to create such barriers - indeed it seemed important that his Puppet Son character, played by Jo Kwek, be emotionally and psychologically relatable. This meant that having Kwek act like a puppet was exactly the wrong choice. It seems Chong was labouring under a basic misapprehension. In an interview with Time Out, he said that "A puppet is basically anything inanimate that can be animated by a puppeteer, so here the actor's limbs and body serve that purpose." But of course, an actor's body is not inanimate - it is utterly alive. The reason audiences see life in a puppet is because they are actively cooperative: they want to fill in the missing details and create the humanity the puppeteer is gesturing towards. This is why, as an audience member, I can share the joy and terror of foam blobs with black-button eyes. So when a human being attempts to be like a puppet, I again cooperatively imbue the performer with the qualities of an inanimate object: and in doing so I no longer care for the performer's emotions, psychology or the stories she has to tell.
And I really didn't care for Kwek. Her "puppetness" prevented me from accessing her emotions; her emotions prevented me from believing she was a puppet. I longed for Piano Teacher's knife-edge balance between human and puppet, where Kwek's portrayal of the Neurotic Mum was a gaudy, acid-ink sketch of need and manipulation. Here, she was just a screaming, clumsy irritant.
The Loser Son in Piano Teacher was a consummate study in weakness. Tan Beng Tian's wavering, pedantic, diffidence; the grown-up-toddler look of her puppet-body's costume; and the awkward disjoints and stuttering of the dialogue all combined to create vacillating sad sack whose bitter resentments would always remain buried beneath his mounds of quivering flesh. And the rest of the play explained the Loser Son's weakness and resentment thanks to his clingy, controlling mother and his distant, judgmental father.
Pinocchio's Complex had instead trained its sights on loneliness, attempting to embody that emotion in the character of the Father (played by Ong Kian Sin) who makes a Puppet Son for himself. But there was no loneliness here; there was only a fire alarm for loneliness: a shrill, incessant warning that loneliness was somewhere nearby. This could be heard in the predictable phone calls the Father made to the answering machines of supposed friends. It could be heard in the banal, repetitive dialogue he shared with the Son. And most distressingly, it could be heard on the several occasions that the actors had been told to run around the stage and shout "Supergirl!" and "Todog!" ad nauseam. Ong did his best to invest in his role, but his material was so unvaried that it soon transformed his earnest, deluded assertions into a pulsating whine. I remember wishing that the theatre's sprinklers would come on and then maybe the wailing siren of loneliness would cease, but there was neither smoke nor fire to activate the sprinklers - nothing genuine, only noise.
Another brilliant element in Piano Teacher was its perceptive and appropriate use of Shakespeare's Hamlet to add to the mood of the play. Chong had understood Hamlet perfectly, mirroring the Danish Prince's procrastination, listlessness and Oedipal relationship with his mother in his own protagonist, and borrowing an Elizabethan sense of dread by subtle, passing touches, such as having a TV news report in the background tell of a plane crash in Denmark. Something was surely rotten in this HDB flat.
Obviously, Pinocchio's Complex takes its basic situation from Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, but that is not the work Chong turned to to supply the mood of his play. Todog is the name of the alien that the father believes will descend from the heavens and carry him off to paradise. Todog is also Godot backwards. And this is apt, because Chong's conception of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is indeed backwards.
Waiting for Godot is about nothing - it is about the Void, the Mess, the inability to create meaning in a world where the old authorities have failed us. Pinocchio's Complex is about loneliness. This means Chong was never going to add to the resonance of his play by referencing a classic work that it has almost nothing in common with. Perhaps Chong mistakenly thought that Didi and Gogo keep waiting for Godot because they are lonely and desire his company. Or perhaps he just sees Godot as shorthand for delusion - for the sustained belief that something will happen when it clearly is not going to. This is superficially valid, but it completely misses on the power of Beckett's play: Didi and Gogo keep waiting because their world does not make any sense and, instead of submitting to the senselessness, they cling on to their one hope of meaning: Godot. It's not that the Father in Chong's play craves meaning in a meaningless world, it's just that he wants a friend.
But this is largely beside the point. Even if Pinocchio's Complex were about the Void, screeching Todog fifty times is not clever or revealing; it is mindless and infuriating.
Not everything about this play was dreadful. The actors rode into the valley of death with a commitment and sincerity that was frankly astonishing. If they knew that someone had blundered in the scripting, they never let on. And Judy Ngo, as both a bullying Contractor and the Father's love interest, Dora, escaped with most of her dignity intact because her scenes, while not especially interesting in their own right, were at least a welcome reprieve from the muddy minefield that was the rest of the play. And of course, the ever reliable duo of lighting designer Lim Woan Wen and sound designer Darren Ng did their level best to supply atmosphere to the play, but without the gravity of a solid plot and strong characters, it all just drifted away into space.
Leaving the theatre after the show, I was worried on two counts. First, selfishly, I was afraid that I would look like an idiot. I thought I must have horribly misjudged Piano Teacher: that it must have been terrible and people were laughing at me because I had praised it to the skies. Second, I worried for the future of The Finger Players. Both worries were based on my honest appraisal at the time that the people in charge of putting on Pinocchio's Complex must be intrinsically incapable of producing good theatre, and that any first-time audiences would conclude as much and never come to a Finger Players show again.
I soon recovered from my first worry when I reread my review of Piano Teacher and it sparked memories of how vibrant, arresting and original that show was. But I am still plagued by my second worry: Pinocchio's Compex was so grating, obvious and amateurish that it must have lost the company some of its audience. And this confuses me, because there are lots of talented people at The Finger Players who could have prevented this disaster. Indeed, they have produced some of the very best theatre I have ever seen. I only hope that they instigate some quality-control measures so that they will never again produce some of the very worst.
Kenneth Kwok's First Impression
Oh dear. I had high hopes for Pinocchio's Complex because
of the acclaim for playwright / director Oliver Chong's I'm Just
A Piano Teacher (which I, unfortunately, did not get to see) and
the play's promising concept: the story of Pinocchio was being used
as inspiration for an exploration of what it means to be truly living
and truly in love. However, for all the visual excitement packed into
the production (and, to be fair, there was much of this to enjoy, right
to the very final scene when an avalanche of "snow" fills
the stage) the individual moments just did not come together to create
any real dramatic momentum or impact. The narrative suffered from problems
with pacing and structure (there was simply too much dead time which
even Chong's directorial flair could not mask) and the dialogue failed
to engage because much of it consisted of the same phrases and ideas
being repeated without any sense of this being crafted to achieve a
specific effect. The acting was competent but none of the actors looked
fully convinced by what they were saying or doing - a sentiment shared
by this member of the audience.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /